In body, we can only be in one place at a time. Our experiences and emotions are all contextualized by whatever particular place we inhabit in the moment. Changing places can change everything. Or nothing.
My office at the university is a place where I do certain kind of work. When I get bogged down, I leave for a walk or take my laptop to work in a study lounge. In a different place, sometimes I can be more productive. Sometimes, a change in venue doesn’t matter at all. Sometimes, my frame-of-mind overrides everything else.
Every place I’ve been has a different resonance and has left a different impression. Some places (home, work, church, the grocery store) I haunt habitually. Other places (my freshman dormitory, my mother’s childhood home, the small town in Indiana where my car broke down) are locked in the past: places that I probably will never visit again in-the-flesh. Places are vital to a sense of who I am and how I narrate my life.
I visited Darmstadt last year, looking for opportunities to collaborate with the h_da students and faculty. I immediately recognized this as a place where I wanted to live and work. Returning this year with my students and my family, I’m here for a month, seeking to understand day-to-day life in this place and seeking to understand what it means to become a place of refuge and resettlement. It is a reminder that our places are dynamic: always changing in response to external factors (new construction, new residents, new seasons) as well as our own internal processes (moods, memories, emotions).
As I embark with my students on this journey of listening and observing, I’m frantically scanning through the catalog of places in my mind. Where have I been before that helps me understand this place? When confronting a new place—with a distinct purpose—remembering places becomes helpful to me to feel prepared to go forward.
So I remember my hometown of Green Bay, Wisconsin where, in the 1980s, Southeast Asian refugees quietly resettled into this blue-collar town. It was there—working on art projects for countless hours across a table our high school art studio—that I built a friendship with Po Lo, a Hmong refugee who has become an entrepreneur and built a successful distillery in Door County. Po and I didn’t talk about the complexities of the Cold War and the aftermath of the Vietnam War. But that art classroom is the place where I became aware of a larger, more complicated world.
I remember the Linda Vista neighborhood of San Diego, where I spent two years working with Hmong refugees. I remember living rooms and community gardens where I started to learn a language—a language that transmitted harrowing and heartening stories of life in Laos, crossing the Mekong River, living in Ban Vinai refugee camp, and resettling the United States.
I remember a community center in St. Paul, Minnesota where I worked as an AmeriCorps member with the Jane Addams School for Democracy, working alongside immigrants and refugees from around the world towards achieving US citizenship, advocating for education, and organizing throughout the community. I experienced a model of collaboration and community building that has inspired my life ever since.
I remember the town of Khek Noi, Thailand where I spent time researching the Hmong movie micro-industry, a transnational network of producers, directors, editors, actors, and crew who have over the last 30 years have created the majority of the Hmong movies that play in homes around the world. I remember sitting in the back of a pickup truck with a politically and generationally diverse group of people brought together to make a movie, realizing that no community is homogenous.
I remember Jay Hang’s Asian restaurant in my current hometown of Menomonie, Wisconsin—a town where a small Hmong refugee community has been established for more than 30 years, often unnoticed and invisible to the larger community. Jay’s restaurant makes excellent food—food that is a nostalgic trigger that takes me back to hundreds of meals in hundred different places.
And now I think of my new place, Darmstadt. And I wonder what this place will mean to me in another month. And I wonder which of the places I have been before will provide helpful context for our project. I feel like my journey through all these places has allowed me to learn so much, but I feel so inept, inexperienced, and uninformed.
So the place I find myself in—more than any other—is one of humility. I’ve been there before, and it has always been the best place to learn. It is the best place to begin.